Leila Sabet Crowned Miss Florida Citrus After Virtual Pageant
By MARY TOOTHMAN
When Leila Sabet of Ponte Vedra Beach was crowned Miss Florida Citrus on June 13, you could have heard a pin drop. There was no large audience on hand to applaud or hoot and holler. The spectators for this pageant, you see, were virtual.
Judges sat at a large conference table in another location and viewed contestants on a computer screen. As for Miss Florida Citrus 2020? She was in her garage.
Miss Florida Citrus Pageant Executive Director Brenda Eubanks Burnette says it was quite a unique experience.
“Due to COVID-19, the country closed down just two weeks prior to when this year’s pageant was scheduled to take place. And so it was delayed and rescheduled as a virtual event.”
It remained a very different experience as organizers worked to set up the pageant in the midst of COVID-19 with all the required social distancing measures.
Candidates signed into a Zoom virtual conference from the boardroom of SVN Saunders, Ralston, Dantzler Real Estate in Lakeland. Candidates signed in throughout the day to compete in various stages of competition, which included their personal interview on-stage question, talent and red carpet — social impact statement.
The virtual pageant involved numerous online practices for the candidates to accustom them to interviewing and performing individually in front of their laptops or cellphones.
Sabet, 24, who graduated cum laude from Florida State University in 2019, says competing on a screen instead of a stage was quite different.
“It was so quiet! To win a pageant without an audience — in my garage— was hilarious.”
She was inspired by Burnette to enter the pageant. “She has made a career out of her pageant experience. She has invested in the industry, and she cares about the development of her titleholders.”
It has been worth the effort, and then some, she says.
“The Miss America organization changed my life. I competed for my first pageant in high school as a dare, with my friends on the dance team.”
And she figured once she began her career, she would be finished with pageants. “I didn’t think competing in the Miss America Organization again would be in the cards for me. I thought I had purpose before starting my career, but once I became neck-deep in a male-dominated industry, I recognized the great need there is to prepare women and increase their influence in the workforce.”
She realized she had something to say. “I remember calling my mom at 5 a.m. when I got off work — I was on night shift at the time — when I had a realization that I needed to be an advocate. I told her, ‘I’m competing again. I need to tell my story.’”
She says she was surprisingly calm throughout the competition. “The moment my name as the winner was announced had a great deal of significance to me. Winning the title of Miss Florida Citrus was the golden ticket for me to be able to go after my dream.
“Strangely enough, I was completely at peace. I knew I had spoken authentically with the judges in my private interview. I explained to them my motivation and mission to empower young women, and I know they saw the appreciation I have for the growth and confidence I have acquired.”
It was not her first pageant, but it was special. “I have competed in many pageants in my lifetime, but for some reason, when my name was announced as Miss Florida Citrus, it felt different,” she says. “Maybe because it was through a screen, maybe because that was my very last chance to compete in the organization — I am aging out after this year — but it was almost as if the stars were aligning.”
Through competing virtually, she says, she learned the importance of energy. “Connecting with people is a skill that every Miss Florida — Miss America must have, and I was challenged through this experience to ensure that I can connect emotionally with the judges from a two-dimensional standpoint.
“I was confidently able to navigate this to ensure that I was able to show them my authenticity. Through educating myself about Florida Citrus, I have learned the importance of agriculture as our nation relies on Florida to provide the oranges for 90 percent of our favorite beverage — orange juice — and that we must protect and appreciate the resources our state offers each of our communities.”
It is a position that calls for a lot of activities. As Miss Florida Citrus 2020, she will have opportunities to attend the Southwest Citrus Expo, the Citrus Grower’s Annual Gala, be involved in City Commission introduction meetings, crop forecast conferences and skeet shooting with the citrus growers.
“It’s a full schedule of interesting events and exposure to unique activities,” she says. “I will also be piloting an Agriculture & Nutrition Program for students with the Nutrients for Life Foundation, alongside Miss Florida 2019, Michaela McLean, who was actually Miss Florida Citrus 2019 when she won the state title.
“Through this program, we will be able to reach hundreds of thousands of students across the state and educate them on the nutrition benefits of Florida’s finest fruit: oranges. In addition, I will represent the citrus industry as Miss Florida Citrus on the Miss Florida stage in June 2021.”
People have been wonderful to her, she says. “So far, all of the people involved in citrus that I have met share the same supportive philosophy. I am beyond grateful to have the strong male and female mentors that I have in my career because they have been the ones to remind me that my voice has value.”
It’s not just a pageant about beauty, either. “Through competing, I have earned thousands in academic scholarships, I have the public speaking skills and confidence to lead hundreds of associates at work, I am able to represent Middle Eastern-Americans by using traditional Persian dancing as a form of cultural diplomacy, and I have the best platform I could hope for to advocate for women’s influence in the professional world.”